Sometimes the best way to understand New Jersey is to make stuff up.
The state of New Jersey has a strange relationship with the past. Throughout the state, you’ll find evidence of history: Revolutionary War battlefields, the sites of dissolved utopian communities, preserved factories, and architectural curiosities like Lucy the Elephant, a six-story building in the shape of an elephant located near Atlantic City.
But it’s also a place where people come to start new chapters in their history: its proximity to New York City has made it somewhere that generations of immigrants from throughout the world have arrived and settled down. It’s a place of contradictions: densely-populated suburbs and the mysteries of the Pine Barrens; the home of musical idealists and politicians who seem to follow the archetype of corruption to a T.
Needless to say, there’s a lot here for a writer to mine. And whether they’re working on something set in the present or delving into the surreal or exploring obscure corners of history, the past is never far away.
Geography, Real and Imagined.
Even history written a few decades ago can take on an elegiac quality in the right hands. Roughly one-third of Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s masterful The Place You Love is Gone focuses on Hoboken in the 1980s, when its close proximity to New York City and relatively low rents attracted artists and writers. (See also: the Yo La Tengo discography.)
Alternately, Hoboken was once the undisputed “sixth borough” of NYC; now, that relationship is less clear. For all that the story and setting of this section of her book feel archetypal, Pierson knows how to capture the lived-in details that make it specific. She’s equally adept at summoning up her past self, and recognizing that both that younger version of her and the younger version of the city in which she dwelled continue on, but in a very different form.
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Some works about New Jersey literally embody the spaces on which they focus. That’s the case with William Carlos Williams’s masterpiece of mid-century poetry, Paterson, which both evokes the nature and industry of the north Jersey town in which it’s set and fragments the structure in which it’s written. And there’s an Allen Ginsberg cameo to boot.
Decaying urban spaces are another aspect of New Jersey life: think of the way that the Asbury Park boardwalk took on symbolic resonance in The Sopranos and The Wrestler. The shifting destinies of Newark, Camden, and Trenton can summon a host of contradictory images. A narrative set in Newark in the 1940s will read vastly differently than one set in the same city in the 1970s, or in the 2010s. In several novels set in a fictional New Jersey city called Dempsey—including Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan—Richard Price works with existing images and memories to create a distinctly New Jerseyan city that never existed with which to explore questions of race, class, family, and history.
Another fictional New Jersey city is the setting of Karen Russell’s magnificently unsettling “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” found in her collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Anthem, New Jersey reads at times like the most despairing corner of Price’s accumulation of New Jerseyan urban archetypes filtered through a surreal ambiguity. In it, a group of friends find a surreal doll in a field, one which prompts unpleasant memories and a growing sense of dread. Price and Russell both create fictional spaces that feel real, exemplifying a certain kind of unease in the shadows of the larger cities for which so much of the state houses suburbs. Perhaps, too, it’s because fictional cities allow their authors to create their own history: the very real histories of Asbury Park, Trenton, and Newark offer writers a lot of grapple with, but eliding aspects of those histories can seem less an act of stylization than a sin of omission. Fictional spaces that magnify certain traits of a place can offer writers more freedom, as well as the ability to focus more narrowly on one characteristic of a particular place.
The shared memories, occasionally flawed bonds, and tense relationships found in families are another way in which the past can loom hugely over works set in New Jersey. Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life follows a family who relocates from Delhi to central New Jersey. It’s about the bond between two brothers, and the way that a horrific accident fragments that relationship. Along the way, it’s a note-perfect evocation of life in the middle of the state, and how the connections among the members of one family can abruptly break, leaving each of them stranded.
Family Life: A Novel
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Set across several decades in and around Newark, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral features one of the most memorably damaged families in recent literature. The book’s protagonist, one “Swede” Levov, is a well-to-do husband and father, and one-time star high school athlete, whose life abruptly bottoms out when his beloved daughter embraces a violent strain of political radicalism in the 1960s. While their novels take radically different approaches, both Roth and Sharma evoke distinctive aspects of the state while also tracking the implosion of family.
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